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Afghanistan: The Trouble With The Transition

A 155mm round is fired from a Howitzer at insurgents at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar Province on July 8.
A 155mm round is fired from a Howitzer at insurgents at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar Province on July 8.
“We cannot assume security responsibility for this province.”

The man who said this is General Mohammad Qasim Jangalbagh, the security commander of the Panjshir province of northern Afghanistan. He went on to explain that “because our province is bordered by insecure provinces, we need a huge force.”

This alarming statement completely undercuts the premises of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in the coming year. It wasn’t that long ago – June 22, to be precise – that President Barack Obama announced that U.S. troops would start pulling out of the country before the end of this year. It was doable, he said. After all, “in some provinces and municipalities, we have already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people.”

U.S. generals, testifying recently before the U.S. Congress, have given all sorts of optimistic data about the progress made in training Afghan security forces. In March, Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared with great fanfare that a select group of seven Afghan districts would soon begin taking over responsibility for their own security. Most of the areas in question were considered to be safe bets, places where the Taliban has the most trouble getting traction.

One of those districts was Panjshir. It is important to understand why.

Panjshir is the birthplace of Ahmad Shah Masood, the heroic Tajik commander who was the most successful opposition commander against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. That was part of a long local tradition of successful resistance to outsiders.

Panjshir is the only region in the country that never succumbed to Taliban control nor embraced its extreme ideology. Most of Panjshir is a deep valley surrounded by high mountains, and almost its entire population is Tajik. Afghan Tajiks have always been suspicious of the Taliban, who tend to be dominated by members of the Pashtun ethnic group. This has made Panjshir much less vulnerable to Taliban infiltration, and as a result it has almost always been an area that was of least concern to the government in Kabul.

But the local administration’s reluctance to take charge of its own security should come as a wake-up call to the Karzai administration – and its protectors in Washington.

Suddenly Dangerous

Obama’s plan to pull U.S. troops out of the country is based on the assumption that Afghan security forces are prepared to fend for themselves.

America’s allies have accepted that logic. With every passing day, it seems, more members of the international coalition are announcing their own troop withdrawal plans.

Yet Panjshir isn’t the only region that seems to be having problems. Mazar-e Sharif, another one of the regions on Karzai’s handover list, seems to have suddenly become a lot more dangerous.

Mazar had always been considered a relatively peaceful and prosperous place until April 1, when an attack on a UN compound in the city center killed 12 people. That was the first indication that not all is well with the security situation there.

Further signs of trouble emerged last week, when the populist governor of Balkh, the Tajik warlord Atta Mohammad Noor, failed to appear in public during an official visit to Mazar-e Sharif by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.

Later, the governor’s spokesperson, Muneer Farhad, shed some light on the governor’s absence, saying that an unspecified threat had prompted the cancellation of all public events on his schedule. “The governor will not attend any event outside his residence or his office,” Farhad announced.

According to the newspaper "Afghanistan Today," these extra security measures appear to be connected with the May 28 assassination of General Mohammad Daud Daud. Daud, whose assassination sent shockwaves through the north, was the police commander of the northern zone of Afghanistan.
Before that killing, Noor often left his compound accompanied by a handful of soldiers. Since then, he no longer goes anywhere without an escort of dozens of vehicle-borne security forces. In many cases, it would seem, he just doesn’t go anywhere at all.

You Call This Safe?

And then there was last week’s insurgent attack on a high-profile Kabul hotel that resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians and two police officers. The fight went on for several hours after Afghan police fled the scene and ended only when coalition forces intervened with a helicopter gunship. The sheer audacity of the attack on the heavily guarded hotel sent shockwaves through the Afghan capital and left many Afghans wondering how their troops can be expected to take charge of the country so soon.

Kabul, Panjsher, and Mazar-e Sharif are the towns with the safest security records in Afghanistan. If things are this bad there, the situation in the rest of the country can only be described as frightening. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, suicide attacks, jail breaks, and militant attacks on security posts are regular occurrences.

To add insult to injury, "Afghanistan Today" reported this week that, in the eastern province of Paktika, around 80 percent of administrative posts are vacant. This might seem odd, given the sky-high unemployment rates around the nation. According to the report, it is fear of the Taliban that keeps educated professionals from working for the government.

When 10,000 U.S. troops and thousands of British and French forces start leaving Afghanistan this month, what will they be leaving behind?

A fragile country with major security concerns. A country where insurgent militias run rampant and are not willing to sit down with the government for talks. A country where people face huge economic and social problems, where corruption and lawlessness remain a challenge, institutions are weak, and the authority of the central government extends only to a few areas.

After 10 years of engagement, the international community seems ready to leave at any cost, and Karzai seems happy to go along with them. The president wants to prove his leadership and show that he is the sole leader of the nation, so he is happy that international troops are leaving the country.

It is equally understandable that the international community wants to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. Yet a precipitous withdrawal could wipe out all the gains for which so many coalition soldiers have sacrificed their lives.

Muhammad Tahir is a Washington correspondent for RFE/RL and former correspondent of the IHA Turkish News Agency in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL